Wander down the wrong alleyway by Tower Bridge, and you may end up in The Thames.
But head down the correct one and you’ll stumble upon the crumbling glory that is Wilton’s Music Hall…
A public house since 1725, it’s said that visiting sailors (who had never even heard of St. Paul’s Cathedral) knew exactly where to find The Mahogany Bar.
Beautiful, eerie and charmingly ramshackle, you can still visit the bar whenever you like. And after years of local campaigning and painstaking refurbishment; the original Victorian music hall itself has been lovingly restored and now plays host to a vast range of live entertainment, from theatre and music to comedy and cabaret.
THE HISTORY OF WILTON’S MUSIC HALL
Wilton’s occupies a space that was once five separate dwellings on a cramped terrace, the largest of which was the original Mahogany Bar (so-called because it was supposedly the first alehouse to have a mahogany bartop installed). Unsurprisingly for such a high-falootin’ establishment, the pub was extended to include a concert room in 1839, which a few years later was fully licensed as a pub theatre.
In around 1850, John Wilton bought the pub, tore down the concert room, and replaced it with a grand music hall. Nine years later he tore that down and replaced it with his ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’, replete with chandeliers, mirrors, ornate plasterwork and the latest heating and lighting equipment. From there, it was unstoppable, playing host to some of the finest variety show artistes of the era… until it was stopped by a huge fire in 1877. Though it was rebuilt a year later, it was deemed structurally unsound and eventually closed in 1881.
After that, it was used for decades as a Methodist Mission Centre, dedicated to helping the poor and needy of the East End and operating as a soup kitchen during the dock workers strikes of the late 19th century. Postwar, it became a makeshift rag sorting centre, before falling into complete dereliction. In the early 70s, locals and performers including Spike Milligan started campaigning to restore Wilton’s Music Hall to its former glory, saving it from demolition – unlike all the other buildings that once surrounded it – and scoring it a Grade II listing. It’s thanks to over half a century’s efforts that the building’s finally become completely usable again. Which brings us to…
WHAT’S ON AT WILTON’S MUSIC HALL
Essentially the history you just read above, but spoken out loud. Plus, behind the scenes access and insights into the people whose histories were made in these four walls.
Details: Regular dates | £8
From The Krays and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax to Muppets Most Wanted, Wilton’s has made an appearance in dozens of films. This tour will take you round the locations used, and give you an insight into the filming process.
Details: Regular dates | £10
Return To Heaven
A stunning dance show inspired by an ancient Egyptian myth, as two adventurers are chased by demons, scientists and supernatural forces. Or as they describe it, “Indiana Jones as viewed through the lens of David Lynch.”
Details: Until 14th March | £18-28
Fail Better 2020
An event series that aims to recast failure in a positive light by discussing notable figures and how failure catalysed change and innovation. This month they’ll be looking at Che Guevara and James Baldwin, featuring live poetry readings and debate.
Details: 16th-17th March | £10-17
Walking To Jerusalem
In 2017, 100 people set out on a modern pilgrimage, walking from London to Jerusalem to call for equal rights for all in the Palestinian struggle. An electric blend of theatre, storytelling and stand-up, this show tells the stories of those who took part, as they traversed mountain passes, Bedouin camps and remote monasteries.
Details: 18th-19th March | £14-26
Gigs with a difference: Artists Unknown pairs household names with emerging musicians in the same genre, giving up-and-coming artists the chance to be heard. The best part? You have no idea which headliner you’ll be hearing until the night.
Details: 20th-21st March | £12.50-25
The Turn of The Screw
Benjamin Britten’s haunting opera is atmospherically staged by the celebrated OperaGlass Works company and an orchestra of 13 exceptional musicians.
Details: 25th March – 4th April | £12.50-30
One Track Minds
A life-affirming, fascinating evening wherein a panel of five or so interesting people plucked from the fields of science, the arts, sports, journalism and more share their story, framed by a song which changed their life. READ MORE
Details: 27th March, 2nd April, 8th & 9th July | £5.50-13
Ida Barr: Granarchist
Olivier Award-winner Christopher Green brings his OAP drag act to Wilton’s, staging a pearly queen’s political protest through a mix of ‘Artificial Hip’ Hop and 19th century dissident music hall songs.
Details: 31st March | £8.50-16
The Gilbert & Sullivan operetta gets a stylish staging from an award-winning theatre company, rebooted below deck on a WWII warship.
Details: 15th April – 9th May | £12.50-32
Lively, buzzing and warm, the Mahogany Bar is the oldest part of the building, still sporting that original bar top, peeling plasterwork and rickety looking reclaimed furniture. The menu boasts a wide range of unique, locally sourced beverages, as well as small plates, salads, and fresh stonebaked pizzas topped with the likes of anchovy and black olive tapenade; pepperoni, fennel seed and chilli; and wild ceps with pecorino and thyme oil. Plus, there’s gelato by the acclaimed Bocca di Lupo to finish.
Fancy a sing song? Not quite sea shanties, but vintage sounding bands and cabaret artists perform every Monday evening, while pub quizzes and other events pop up throughout the week (check their website for details).
And if you’re after something a bit quieter, you can retreat to the hidden Cocktail Bar upstairs in Wilton’s old green room, with bartenders on hand to create whatever your heart desires.
Except for an affordable housing market.
NOTE: Wilton’s Music Hall hosts regular performances – you can find out more and book tickets HERE. The Mahogany Bar is open Mon-Sat, 5-11pm (and for 1.5 hours before matinees) – no reservations needed, just turn up.
Wilton’s Music Hall | 1 Grace’s Alley, E1 8JB
Last Updated: 3rd March 2020 | Main image: Paul Hudson/Flickr
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